How Cicero Molds a Virtuous Leader out of Plato: Ancient Lessons in Moral Education and Duty

This article is a response to the #StrategyAndEthics series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of ethical considerations, the development of strategy, and the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

The more things change, the more they look…like ancient Greece and Rome. Not long ago the Associated Press highlighted a burgeoning ethics problem in the U.S. military, which has seen the number of officers dismissed for misconduct triple over the last three years.[1] Air Force cheating scandals, Navy contract fraud, and Army sexual misconduct, gambling, and alcohol cases have all prompted a recent Secretary of Defense to appoint a senior general officer as an “ethics czar” with a mandate for planning and executing appropriate ethics training at every level of command.[2]

Does the military have a deep ethics problem, as some suggest?[3] Why are relatively high numbers of officers “falling short of these high standards and expectations,” as he has indicated?[4] Top military leaders have argued that we may be seeing the negative consequences of power exhibited by some individuals, and proper management of the Profession of Arms may have suffered due to the decade’s war demands.[5]

If the military is to maintain its role as a trustworthy profession serving society, it does have to be exceptional.[6] Indeed, it should strive for moral excellence. But to address the ethics challenge, the military should move beyond the typical bureaucratic response. There can be no magic formula beyond self-improvement, education, and a commitment to duty as a guide. There are proposed training programs that may or may not be effective; however, it need not be more complicated than revisiting ancient thought. The overlap that exists between modern military values and the cardinal moral virtues of antiquity is powerful. Plato and Cicero, two of the greatest classical thinkers, offer prescient thoughts for preserving moral excellence.

No Strangers to Moral Decay

But why turn to the classics? Although modern states seem to place emphasis on individual liberty over collective virtue, it is easy to see how individualism defers to the common good in an effective military, where soldiers live together, fight together, and too often die together. Collective well-being takes precedence over individuality because the mission—and likely sacrifices—demand it. Ancient thinkers excelled at not only defining that collective virtue, but also at explaining how to orient oneself to it.

What’s more, both Plato and Cicero wrote during periods of societal atrophy. They saw the ruling philosopher as necessary to stemming the decay of their respective constitutions. This may not be particularly interesting to the military officer who has no inclination toward either philosophy or ruling a state.[7] It becomes more intriguing, however, when one understands that the moral strength of the philosopher makes him a better leader.


When Plato wrote his masterpiece Republic in 380 B.C., it would become the foundational work on ancient political philosophy, loosely defined as the love of wisdom as applied to public affairs. Interestingly, Plato aspired to public service as a young man—he had most likely served in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta—but he changed his mind when he saw the rise to power of the Thirty Tyrants and their subsequent dismantling of Athenian democracy.[8]

Plato even suffered the execution of his wise friend and mentor, Socrates. Socrates’ trial and death convinced Plato that “the human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really and truly philosophers acquire political power.”[9] The true philosopher, of course, is not only one who is wise but one who lives virtuously, and Plato struggled to reconcile this ideal with the reality of a decadent Athens.[10]

Marcus Tullius Cicero later experienced similar political upheaval and concern for the Roman Republic as he wrote De Officiis (On Duties) in 44 B.C. Cicero, a Roman orator, thinker, lawyer, and senator, had seen the rise of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey. Though offered a position of power, he refused to join the Triumvirate, citing its unconstitutional nature.

Like Plato, Cicero recognized the corroding tendencies of power, and he believed that arresting such corrosion required “true philosophic greatness of spirit [and] the moral goodness to which Nature most aspires.”[11] Witnessing the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C. and the ensuing civil war that would ultimately destroy the remnants of the Republic, Cicero nevertheless had renewed hopes for a stable and more equal republic when Octavian and Antony came to power. Such hopes were quickly thwarted when Cicero, along with other leaders of those opposed to Caesar and his supporters, was outlawed by the new tyrants. Before Cicero could escape, Octavian and Antony executed him and placed his head and hands on display in the same Forum where he had frequently orated or written against the regime.

Plato’s and Cicero’s harsh experiences give new meaning to the popular phrase toxic leadership. Indeed, both men lived under tyrannical regimes and dedicated their lives to restoring virtue to their respective governing institutions. Therefore, should we desire to arrest any decay that we see in our military, we should understand and engage with such texts as intellectual guideposts.

The Virtuous but Reluctant Philosopher-King

Many themes—justice, politics, nature, convention, and the good life—pervade ancient philosophical thought, and one can read the classics as powerful and instructive life manuals. But on the question of leadership specifically, Plato and Cicero make it clear that education and virtue are most important. Theirs is a powerful message emphasizing character and leader development.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis Davis (Wikimedia)

In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates concerns himself with the question of justice, and the ensuing discussion underpins the moral characteristics he believes rulers should exemplify. First, Socrates addresses the protests of various interlocutors, including the hothead Thrasymachus, who defines justice as “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”[12] This definition irks Socrates because it implies that “a ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, never makes errors and unerringly decrees what is best for himself, and this his subjects must do.”[13] Socrates refuses to accept this might-makes-right argument, and he arrives at a different definition after closely examining what it means to live a good life.

The challenge for any human being, then, is to rule the tripartite soul through reason, which focuses on a higher truth...

Socrates begins an examination of what it means to have arête, or moral excellence and virtue. Detailing a theory of the tripartite soul, he “believes that there are three fundamentally different kinds of desires: appetitive desires for food, drink, sex, and the money with which to acquire them; spirited desires for honor, victory, and good reputation; and rational desires for knowledge and truth.”[15] The challenge for any human being, then, is to rule the tripartite soul through reason, which focuses on a higher truth and the Form of the Good.[16]

Trouble arises when either the appetitive or spirited parts of the soul dominate, for the soul ceases to pursue enlightenment and instead becomes mired in temporal, earthly things. In other words, the soul will tend to stray from moral excellence. It is precisely these licentious and appetitive desires that seem to be burdening higher numbers of military officers today.

Rationality is closely tied to wisdom, Socrates’ first virtue. An individual is “wise because of that small part of himself that rules in him.”[17] Wisdom is the rational component of the soul and comprises “the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul.”[18] Quite simply, it controls the appetitive and spirited desires we have by placing reason, deliberation, and long-term goals first. For example, running two miles is painful in the short-term, but the wisdom of its long-term health benefits can override the immediate, appetitive desire to stop the pain.

This is, of course, good news for a defense institution that places a premium on professional education and wisdom in the ranks of its leaders, but this may be where more than a decade of war has caused problems. Instead of continuing to prioritize leaders of character, we have succumbed to the short-term benefits of those who can fight and lead now, with perhaps less concern for their moral attributes. It may have been a necessary risk in light of the demands of long wars, but it is time to return to placing a premium on the moral development of leaders.

Courage derives from a part of the soul which is “this power to preserve through everything the correct and law-inculcated belief about what is to be feared and what isn’t.”[19] Living courageously has obvious importance for soldiers, whose education and training instills the belief about what is to be feared.

Third, moderation permeates the whole soul, meaning it governs the relationship between the appetitive, rational, and spirited desires. Plato, through Socrates, describes moderation as “this agreement between the naturally worse and the naturally better as to which of the two is to rule.”[20] As long as the relationship between the soul’s three components is sound, one need not worry.

If moderation represents the side of the coin that willingly acquiesces to the right order of the soul, then justice is the other side that ensures the soul’s three parts are rightly ordered. Each component has its proper role, and “justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own.”[21] It maintains the well ordering of the human soul and ensures that deliberative faculties rule over unnecessary desires. Together, these virtues and their correct ordering can lead to a life of happiness, which implies virtuous living.

Much as it orders the human soul, a sense of justice also determines who should rule the city. For Socrates, there can be no question: it is the philosopher, or the greatest lover of knowledge. He has the wisdom and decency from a lifetime of careful education, which has enabled him to turn his soul from darkness to complete enlightenment and goodness. But all of this education comes with a catch: he must break from his learning to rule and become a philosopher-king.

What is perhaps strange according to modern standards—and problematic by Socrates’ admission—is that the virtuous and wise philosopher does not in fact wish to lead or rule; instead, he realizes the fleeting nature of the corporeal, material world and wishes to philosophize all day. Quite simply, the philosopher loathes ruling—although the less capable members of the city need his leadership. The city, of course, has educated him in mathematics, gymnastics, dialectic, and moral excellence with the expectation of having a return on that investment, but because he is immersed in the pursuit of knowledge, he is reluctant to leave the good and happy life for public affairs.

It is precisely this contentedness that makes the philosopher the most qualified to govern, for he is the best educated and will not fight for the position.[22] His function, however, is marked by compulsory—not selfless—service and driven by the order that instructs the philosopher in his proper role. Socrates repeatedly mentions “forcing” the philosophers to rule, and he notes that “each of them will certainly go to rule as to something compulsory.”[23] The philosopher’s desire not to rule indicates that an earnest reluctance to lead may be virtuous and healthy; it indicates wariness about the corrupting influences of positional power. By modern standards, this is tough to reconcile with the proven benefits of an all-volunteer force. But perhaps, today’s military officers can learn from antiquity the value of a tempered ambition for command that is motivated not by self but by placing the good of the organization and its people first.[24] Inculcating military culture with this idea requires reorienting on service values (the Army’s values of leadership, duty, respect, selfless-service, honor, integrity, and personal courage are among them), which are tightly bound with the ethics of antiquity. Focusing on these works as a teaching point of leader development allows us to move beyond modern service values as simple catchphrases and understand that they are grounded in enduring philosophical masterpieces.

The Dutiful Philosopher-Leader

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Not surprisingly, an emphasis on virtues also permeates De Officiis, which some scholars have said is “Cicero’s Republic.”[25] For Cicero, ethics and service were also inextricably linked.[26] A good man follows the principles of justice in doing no harm to others and in observing the common interest.[27] Once again, reason and wisdom must be preeminent in the human soul, for “in no other particular are we farther removed from the nature of beasts.”[28] The tension still exists between following justice and pursuing individual advantage, but a good person resolves it with an adherence to ethical duties.[29] In describing moral goodness, Cicero shared with Plato utmost deference to the cardinal virtues, and he adds to justice and wisdom the virtues of decorum, respect for property, and greatness of spirit.[30]

While Plato seems more intent on developing wise leaders who are compelled to rule for the common good, his Roman follower Cicero elaborates in suggesting that a sense of duty and social obligation—not compulsion—should underlie a distinct service ethic of the leader-statesman. Although Plato makes no mention of the virtue duty in Republic, Cicero later addresses this important component to statesmanship in De Officiis, a work that nicely complements Plato’s Republic by emphasizing the social obligation that comes with wisdom. This should resonate nicely with the military officer who pursues lifelong learning.

...knowledge can be of no worth if it does not motivate a sense of duty to impart that knowledge on behalf of safeguarding human interest...

Certainly, Cicero does not deny that wisdom is the most important of the virtues, but he expands upon Plato by arguing that speculative knowledge (i.e., philosophy, or love of wisdom) can be of no worth if it does not motivate a sense of duty to impart that knowledge on behalf of safeguarding human interest. Cicero is lucid in his critique:

For [philosophers] secure one sort of justice, to be sure, in that they do no positive wrong to anyone, but they fall into the opposite injustice; for hampered by their pursuit of learning they leave to their fate those whom they ought to defend. And so, Plato thinks, they will not even assume their civic duties except under compulsion. But in fact it were better that they assume them of their own accord; for an action intrinsically right is just only on condition that it is voluntary.[31]

In other words, a leader can be of little worth to others if he is content philosophizing constantly. The true calling is not marked by compulsion, as it is for the philosopher-king; instead, it is driven by the innate desire that the philosopher feels to use his wisdom for the betterment of humankind. Furthermore, when deciding “where most of our moral obligation is due, country would come first.”[32] The imperative to use one’s knowledge for good in public affairs is clear, and this above all else should drive the contemporary officer’s desire to lead, as well.

Just as Cicero’s emphasis on the service ethic is directly translatable to military leaders, so too is his caution regarding the perils of ambition and power. Personal advantage is constantly in conflict with justice, as “the great majority of people…when they fall prey to ambition for either military or civil authority, are carried away by it so completely that they quite lose sight of the claims of justice.”[33] They cease to do their job, and the constitution of the soul and the city lose their right order. Cicero cautions us against the “ambition for glory; for it robs us of liberty, and in defense of liberty a high-souled man should stake everything.”[34]

Cicero seems to have the same trepidation towards positional authority that Plato expressed when he described the reluctance of the philosopher to lead. It is true that an officer should lead for the good of his followers, but “one ought not to seek military authority; nay, rather it ought sometimes to be declined, [and] sometimes to be resigned.”[35] The message still resonates: the perks of positional authority and opportunities for glory and fame are powerful motivators, yet they can sway one’s moral compass from selflessness. Only a constant grooming of the virtuous soul and the altruistic desire to use wisdom for good can counter such temptation. This requires a commitment to education, which yields officers with excellent character.

Education, ethical behavior, and good leadership are inextricably linked in antiquity, and they continue to be for today’s leaders.

In short, Cicero believes public service is a calling whereby the naturally selfish individual yields to the common good. Moral obligation is so important that “above all we must decide who and what manner of men we wish to be and what calling in life we would follow.”[36] Self-interest is the corollary to this idea, for “through some preoccupation or self-interest they are so absorbed that they suffer those to be neglected whom it is their duty to protect.”[37] But with the help of education and knowledge of things human and divine, “it necessarily follows that duty which is connected with the social obligation is the most important duty.”[38] Education, ethical behavior, and good leadership are inextricably linked in antiquity, and they continue to be for today’s leaders.

Education orients the soul towards rationality and what is good—this is Plato’s greatest contribution. Cicero goes further by infusing education with the duty imperative, which binds the wise leader to the conduct of public affairs for the collective good. Certainly, leadership for the collective good, not individual gain, must continue to motivate military leaders today. Education is not only good for expertise in the Profession of Arms, it is also necessary for the moral excellence and arête that Western classical philosophers stressed in character development.

The Classics in Every Cargo Pocket?

Recent ethical lapses seem to have thrown the Department of Defense into a tizzy. What shall be done? Is there one-size-fits-all training that can heal what ails the institution? These responses are natural; our profession and Oath of Office demand that we uphold a trust with the American people and fulfill a serious social obligation in supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution. To groom character, however, there can be no canned solution.

People make mistakes; this much is true. What makes ancient thought so relevant is that contending with human nature and the unnecessary desires of the human soul has always been, and will continue to be, a struggle. “If men were angels,” said James Madison urging ratification of the Constitution in 1788, “no government would be necessary.”[39] By extension, no defense apparatus would be necessary to protect us from each other, either.

But it is also true that lately ethical transgressions have been particularly egregious, and their increasing numbers have exceeded the statistical norm.[40] Military leaders must continue to uphold public confidence with exemplary behavior. This requires renewed commitment to education, self-improvement, reason, and duty. Placing blanket ethics training aside, we can start to relearn virtuous living by picking up copies of Republic and De Officiis. Indeed as professionals, we have an obligation to self-train on these classic works and groom our own moral excellence, for the trust of the society we serve depends on it. Education and cultural change, of course, take time, but we must recognize the ageless importance of virtues and their unmistakable commonality with modern service values.

In the poignant last pages of Anton Myrer’s classic military fiction Once an Eagle, the dying protagonist Sam Damon wisely advises his protégé that “if it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being—try to be a good human being.”[41] Much has been made recently of revisiting the basics in our warfighting functions. There is something to be gained from revisiting the basics in morality, as well.

Todd Hertling is a U.S. Army officer and a former Assistant Professor in American politics at the United States Military Academy. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Mosaic depicting School of Athens, from Pompei, Italy (A. Dagli Orti/Getty Images)


[1] Lolita C. Baldor, “Misconduct Forces More Soldiers Out,” Associated Press, February 17, 2014, (accessed March 7, 2014).

[2] Jennifer Hlad, “Hagel Appoints Top Ethics Officer,” Stars and Stripes, March 25, 2014, (accessed December 10, 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Burns, “Hagel Seeks Answers to Military Ethics Crisis,” Associated Press, February 7, 2014 (accessed March 7, 2014).

[5] Baldor, “Misconduct Forces More Soldiers Out.” See also Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015).

[6] Military service members must be careful not to jeopardize the high degree of trust that the American public has in them. Currently, seventy-six percent of Americans have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, which leads other institutions of government. See Gallup, “Confidence in Institutions,” (1-4 June 2013), (accessed March 7, 2014).

[7] Socrates spends considerable time responding to the critique waged against philosophers that “the greatest number become cranks, not to say completely vicious, while those who seem completely decent are rendered useless to the city because of the studies you recommend.” See Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1992), 487d.

[8] Most sources on Plato’s biography are relatively poor, but his Seventh Letter is generally accepted as authentic. Plato describes how “these [Thirty] men made the former constitution seem like a golden age by comparison.” See “Introduction” to Plato, Republic, ix.

[9] Ibid.

[10] There is a general lack of agreement among historians and political philosophers regarding when the autonomous Greek city-state culminated. While Plato may have perceived Athens as decadent, some modern scholars see a time that overlapped with his life—specifically the period ca. 400-322 B.C.—when the Athenian polis was relatively stable and required few structural adjustments. According to other academics, the decline of Athens came in late antiquity and gradually began under Diocletian’s reign in AD 284. See Mogens Herman Hansen, Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 50. As such, the mass and elite positions were sufficiently balanced during Plato’s time. See Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 55.

[11] Cicero, De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913), IX.65, (accessed December 10, 2016).

[12] Plato, Republic, 338c.

[13] Ibid., 341a.

[14] Christopher D. Kolenda, “What is Leadership? Some Classical Ideas,” in Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, ed. Christopher D. Kolenda (Carlisle, PA: The Army War College Foundation Press, 2001), 3-25.

[15] Plato, Republic, xv.

[16] Ibid., VII.

[17] Ibid., 442d.

[18] Ibid., 442c.

[19] Ibid., 430b.

[20] Ibid., 432a.

[21] Ibid., 433a.

[22] Ibid., 520d.

[23] Ibid., 520e.

[24] This is not to say that all ambition is “bad.” Ambition may, in fact, exist on a spectrum with greater and lesser moral virtue. For a description of what it means to have “an honorable and just form of grand ambition,” see Robert Faulkner, The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 6.

[25] Cicero, of course, also wrote his own Republic (De Republica) from 54 to 52 B.C. Scholar A.A. Long is intentionally provocative in suggesting that Cicero’s “Republic” is best represented where the reader would least expect it—in his work De Officiis, not De Republica. See A.A. Long, “Cicero’s Politics in De Officiis,” in Justice and Generosity: Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy: Proceedings of the Sixth Symposium Hellenisticum, ed. A. Laks and M. Schofield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 213-40.

[26] Melissa Lane, “Ancient Political Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2011 ed., ed. Edward N. Zalta, (accessed March 7, 2014).

[27] Cicero, De Officiis, X.31.

[28] Ibid., XVI.50.

[29] Lane, “Ancient Political Philosophy.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] Cicero, De Officiis, IX.28.

[32] Ibid., XVII.58.

[33] Ibid., I.26.

[34] Ibid., XX.68.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., XXXII.117,

[37] Ibid., IX.28.

[38] Ibid., XLIII.153.

[39] “Publius” [Madison], “Federalist Paper No. 51,” (accessed March 7, 2014).

[40] In 2010, misconduct forced 119 Army officers out of service, and this number was consistent with trends of the past decade. By contrast, the number was 387 in 2013. Baldor, “Misconduct Forces More Soldiers Out.”

[41] Anton Myrer, Once an Eagle (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), 815.